It presented small-town China almost entirely through the eyes of an outsider gradually feeling the place out, getting a sense of its rhythms, studying its language and history and probing the minds of its young people through his teaching work.
After the first couple hundred pages, I felt like I knew the place; by the end of it, I found myself wishing he'd go somewhere else for a change.
He finally has, and I'm glad he did. Hessler's new book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, is all over the map. Now we get his take on everywhere from Xinjiang's Flaming Mountains in the far west to the North Korean border at Dandong. This is a compelling collection of impressions from around contemporary China – a sort of River Town with itchy feet.
After his Peace Corps stint, Hessler moved to Beijing in 1998 to work as a journalist and got a gig as the New Yorker's first China correspondent. His writing style is more or less suited to that publication: meandering, highly literate and witty, though without the magazine's tiresome urbanity, which would be utterly out of place in the China he inhabits.
His somewhat academic bent and deep curiosity lead him to explore the country's less newsy, more historical side.
He'd much rather write about the origins of the Chinese writing system (this is where the oracle bones, the ancient "inscriptions on shell and bone" discovered quite by accident, come into play) than, say, G-share reforms. If that makes your eyelids heavy, be warned.
The real meat is in the characters Hessler follows. He jumps between the stories of a brilliant oracle bone scholar shamed into committing suicide during the Cultural Revolution, a Uighur black market money changer (who finds his way to the United States by exploiting a loophole before immigration tightens after 9/11) and bright former students from Fuling who join the great west-to-east migration as they try their luck in Shenzhen and Wenzhou. As in River Town, Hessler's own commentary is sparse but insightful. He prefers to let people do their own talking, reproducing conversations and letters.
Hessler does occasionally find himself in the midst of larger events, and records what he sees and hears. He follows a spontaneous anti-American protest on the streets of Nanjing following the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, noting that the only American objects the incensed students can find to lash out at are Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.
He later stumbles upon a village election near the Great Wall (where he is detained for being a foreigner) and the silent Falun Gong demonstration in front of the government complex at Zhongnanhai that led to the group's ban. But he is ever mindful of the undercurrents fueling the sensitivities that occasionally bubble to the surface in China, providing background wherever needed.
There isn't much tying this book together thematically – at times it feels like reading Hessler's New Yorker portfolio – but that doesn't matter much. Almost every vignette is fascinating in its own right.
If there is a point here, it is that despite the dramatic changes in modern China, the past remains a powerful force in people's lives, whether they remember it or not.
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler, published by HarperCollins, US$26.95
More similarities than differences
Americans and Chinese shared a number of characteristics: they were pragmatic and informal, and they had an easy sense of humor. In both nations, people tended to be optimistic, sometimes to a fault. ? They were deeply patriotic, but it was a patriotism based on faith rather than experience: relatively few people had spent much time abroad, but they still loved their country deeply. ? Both China and the United States were geographically isolated, and their cultures were so powerful that it was hard for people to imagine other perspectives.
But each nation held together remarkably well. They encompassed a huge range of territory, ethnic groups, and languages, and no strictly military or political force could have achieved this for long. Instead, certain ideas brought people together. When the Han Chinese talked about culture and history, it reminded me of the way Americans talked about democracy and freedom. These were fundamental values, but they also had some quality of faith, because if you actually investigated – if you poked around an archaeological site in Gansu, or an election in Florida – then you saw the element of disorder that lay just beneath the surface. Some of the power of each nation was narrative: they smoothed over the irregularities, creating good stories about themselves.
That was one reason each country coped so badly with failure. When things went wrong, people were startled by the chaos – the outlandish impact of some boats carrying opium or a few men armed with box cutters. For cultures accustomed to controlling and organizing their world, it was deeply traumatic. And it was probably natural that in extreme crisis, the Americans took steps that undermined democracy and freedom, just as the Chinese had turned against their own history and culture.